Once upon a Lenten season, I was preparing a meditation on Jesus’ cry of dereliction in the Gospel of Mark, the enigmatic: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. Jesus’ cry presents us with any number of troubling questions.
One question is emotionally freighted: If God is a loving parent, how could God forsake a child, either Jesus or any one of us?
Another is theologically freighted: If Jesus is fully God, how could he forsake himself? The doctrine of the Trinity is not a net fine enough to catch this text. With such questions on my heart, I approached this text in the gospel and looked for clues as to what Mark might be saying about divine dereliction.
Jesus’ cry of dereliction does not stand on its own. Mark carefully constructed the concluding scenes of his gospel to show that Jesus is forsaken by every segment of society before he is finally and climatically forsaken by God. In a series of scenes, we see that Jesus is forsaken by:
- Judas, Peter, and the rest of the disciples—And all of them deserted him and fled (cf. 14:43ff.);
- Pilate—Wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified (15:15);
- soldiers—After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him (15:20);
- passers-by—And those who passed by derided him… (15:29);
- priests and scribes—In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves…. (15:31ff.);
- robbers—Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. (15:32).
I found Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ forsakenness too much to bear. God joins the ranks of Jesus’ disciples, Pilate, the soldiers, passers-by, the Jewish leaders, and the robbers. Jesus is utterly forsaken and dies utterly alone.
I could not imagine what Mark might be saying to his community of believers, and I could not imagine what I might say to mine. I had been raised to believe that God’s steadfast love was just that, steadfast, and I had taken comfort in the belief that I am “not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” I put my notes on Jesus’ cry of dereliction into a file, never to see the light of day.
By chance that same Lenten season, I happened to hear a sermon by a well-known and well-traveled preacher on Jesus’ cry of dereliction. He confessed that he had avoided preaching Jesus’ cry for twenty-five years. However, he had recently learned more about the physiological effects of crucifixion, affording him a new understanding of what Jesus meant when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” During the ordeal of crucifixion, the weight of the body on the arms causes a paralysis which begins in the arms and gradually extends to the rest of the body. When the paralysis reaches the diaphragm, the victim is unable to breathe and slowly suffocates.
This well-known preacher proceeded to note the close correspondence between Mark’s description of the crucifixion and the description of suffering Psalm 22. Not only is Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” the first line of this psalm, but a number of encounters in the psalm parallel those of Jesus on the cross, among them “all who see me mock at me,” and “they divide my clothes among themselves; for my clothing they cast lots.”
Considering this background information, this preacher concluded that Jesus was reviewing Psalm 22 in his mind as he hung on the cross, but was only able to gasp the first lines because he was short of breath. Therefore, what seems to be a cry of dereliction is in actuality an affirmation of the presence of God in human suffering. For while the psalm begins with a statement of forsakenness, it does not end there. Jesus died with the closing words of the Psalm also in mind: “…he has not hid his face from me, but has heard, when I cried to him…future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”
This was a well-known preacher, and his sermon was as always well-delivered; but I was not moved by it. It seemed to me to be an example of exegetical alchemy, a process of magically transforming an inconvenient biblical truth into one that was easier to believe.
Mark had carefully constructed his portrayal of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion to emphasize that God-forsakenness was a reality in Jesus’ life and by extension a reality in the lives of the followers of Jesus.
We followers of Jesus know times of trial when Jesus’ words are on our lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” times when we are sick unto death, times when our loved ones abandon us, times when our neighbors huddle hungry and harangued in refugee camps and God seems so far away.
We share this painful reality with Jesus, and in sharing our God-forsakenness, we are enigmatically not alone, mysteriously not forsaken. Wherever God-forsakenness brings us–to the dust of Sheol or the fires of Hell–and however it torments us, Jesus has been there, and we wait in hope that God will raise us from that place in the same way that God raised him.